Driven by history: Billings-born historian brings battlefields to life

2011-08-14T00:15:00Z 2014-08-25T15:35:14Z Driven by history: Billings-born historian brings battlefields to life



Of The Gazette Staff

The Billings Gazette

LITTLE BIGHORN BATTLEFIELD NATIONAL MONUMENT — On a hot, nearly windless day in early August, Edwin C. Bearss is looking across the Little Bighorn River as he describes an early scene in the battle that would come to be known as Custer’s Last Stand.

He is dressed in a ball cap, two T-shirts and a pair of stained khaki pants held up by an ancient leather belt. His hiking boots, by contrast, are sturdy and relatively new. He looks like a man who can’t be bothered by superfluities.

A busload of tourists, who have come from around the country to follow Bearss (pronounced “Bars”) on a five-day tour that takes in several of the battles leading up to the climactic fight on the Little Bighorn, are listening carefully to his monologue, some of them taking notes.

Bearss recounts details of the Battle of the Little Bighorn with a vivid immediacy, sometimes squeezing his eyes shut, as if imagining himself there on that fateful day of June 25, 1876.

He is lean and not much more than average height, but the 88-year-old historian has a gruff, authoritative voice that commands attention. His face is deeply tanned and he is holding a swagger stick that is engraved with the names of Civil War battles and capped with a brass cartridge. He often gestures with it.

At the moment he is describing how, on the day of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, Cheyenne sharpshooters across the river were firing at troops under the command of Capt. George Yates. Slipping into the first person and the present tense, as he often does, Bearss puts himself in the position of Yates’ men, who are armed with 45-70 rifles.

“If I hit you with a 45-70 in the meaty part of the leg, or the meaty part of the arm, I’m going to knock you down,” he says, emphasizing the last three words with a triumphant relish.

And there, perhaps, is the key to what makes Bearss, a Billings-born, Montana-raised former chief historian for the National Park Service, one of the most revered battlefield guides in the United States.

His encyclopedic knowledge of dozens of battlefields, here and abroad, is probably unrivaled, but he has the additional advantage of belonging to what he has called “a kind of fraternity” of people who have come under fire in battle.

His intimate knowledge of what bullets can do to the meaty parts and other portions of the human body came on Jan. 2, 1944, fighting with the 3rd Marine Raider Battalion at “Suicide Creek” on the Japanese-held island of New Britain, in the South Pacific.

Bearss took machine gun fire in the left elbow and right shoulder, lay wounded for an hour and a half and then was hit again in the left buttocks and left heel while struggling to his feet.

He managed to get to safety and eventually was evacuated to a naval hospital in San Diego. He calls his wounding a “great benefit” because he was hospitalized for 26 months, and the hospital had a fine library.

He spent his time devouring books, most of them about the Civil War. It was not a discovery of that bloody conflict, but an intense reintroduction.

A ranch near Sarpy

His exposure to Civil War history came in his childhood, where, after his birth in Billings in 1923, he grew up on the E Bar S Ranch near Sarpy. His father, a World War I Marine, used to read accounts of military campaigns to Bearss and his younger brother. His infatuation with the Civil War began when he read a stirring biography of Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.

Bearss went so far as to name his family’s livestock after Civil War generals and battles. His favorite milk cow was named Antietam, for the pivotal 1862 battle in Maryland.

“To show I wasn’t wedded to one side or the other,” he says, “I named her first calf Sharpsburg,” the Confederate name for the battle.

Though he was raised mostly on the ranch, Bearss’ family moved to Billings for a little more than a year and he attended McKinley School as a sixth-grader. After graduating from Hardin High School in 1941, he hitchhiked out East and toured three important Civil War battlefields: Antietam, Manassas and Gettysburg.

It was obvious that war was imminent, Bearss said, and military service was a given in his family, so he wanted to have an adventure before the war came.

“It was the ideal age for hitchhiking,” he said. “At that time it was rather easy if you were young and looked innocent.”

Bearss enlisted in the Marine Corps on April 28, 1942, and shipped out for the war in the Pacific in July. Before being wounded in New Britain, Bearss took part in the closing days of the battle for Guadalcanal and saw action in the Russell Islands.

He was discharged in March 1946, when his long hospital stay finally ended, and he enrolled at Georgetown University. He decided against the University of Montana in Missoula only because there was a shortage of housing there and men studying under the GI Bill had to live in barracks. He’d had enough of that.

Bearss earned a bachelor of arts in foreign service in 1949 and went to work for the Navy Hydrographic Office in Maryland. He continued to visit Civil War battlefields in his spare time, and after three years with the Navy office he went back to school, earning a master’s in history from Indiana University in 1955.

The visit to Shiloh

He might have become a professor and academic historian, but a visit to Shiloh, a Civil War battlefield in Tennessee, changed his life. This was in 1954, when he was still writing his master’s thesis on Confederate Gen. Patrick Cleburne. He had previously studied the battle of Shiloh only in books, and now, walking the terrain with park historian Charles “Pete” Shedd, he had a realization.

Talking with Shedd and looking at the battlefield from a soldier’s perspective, Bearss knew that some of his own notions about the battle and Cleburne’s part in it had to be wrong. He also realized that armchair history was not to be his calling.

“I thought I’d better get back to walking these battlefields,” he said.

He has been walking them ever since. He went to work for the Park Service in 1955, when he was hired as an historian at Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi.

One of the biggest coups of his career came at Vicksburg, where he and a couple of friends succeeded in locating and recovering the Cairo, a Union gunboat stuck in the muddy bottom of the Yazoo River.

It was also in Vicksburg that he met his wife, Margie, a schoolteacher and Civil War buff herself. She was a Mississippian who overlooked his origins, though no one else in that region would let him forget them.

“One thing you learn in the South is that whether you’re from Montana or California or Vermont or Connecticut, you’re a Yankee,” he said. “They called me a Yankee historian.”

More than 300 battlefields

In 1958 he was promoted to Southeastern regional historian for the Park Service. He continued to live in Vicksburg, but he was usually on the road, visiting more and more battlefields in the United States and overseas.

Of the 383 Civil War battlefields — “Now, I’m throwing out clashes between partisans,” he says — he’s visited all but 10 or so. He’s been to every major battlefield of the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, to most of the World War II battlefields in Europe, including every one in Sicily and Italy, and to many of the scenes of important battles in the South Pacific.

Recognizing what a resource he was, the Park Service often called on him when it was developing new parks, or expanding existing ones. He helped create parks at Pea Ridge and Wilson’s Creek, both Civil War battlefields, and he worked on expansions at numerous sites around the country, including Bighorn Canyon in Montana and Wyoming.

Bearss was named chief historian of the National Park Service in 1981. He held that position until 1994, then spent one year as special assistant to the director before retiring in 1995. He lives in Arlington County, Va.

Retirement only gave him more time to do what he really loved, which was leading tours of battlefields. He had stopped doing it as part of his official duties way back in Vicksburg, but he never stopped leading tours on weekends and during his time off.

He concentrated on the Civil War, often taking ROTC classes and active-duty military officers on tours, and in retirement he expanded into tours of European and Pacific battlefields. He has led many tours for the Chicago Civil War Roundtable and has worked on behalf of various travel companies. His recent visit to the Little Bighorn was under the auspices of Smithsonian Journeys.

Bearss said he started learning about the Battle of the Little Bighorn as a defensive measure. Park Service colleagues, knowing he was from Montana, would ask him about the battle, but in his early days with the NPS he knew almost nothing about it.

He had been to the battlefield just twice as a young man, once on a Hardin High field trip and another time when he wanted to “see how far I could ride a bicycle in one day.” Back then, he said, there was no interpretation at the battlefield.

“You thought of it as the place where the cemetery was,” he said.

Goaded by his Park Service colleagues, he learned all he could about the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and by the early 1990s he was leading tours there, too.

No matter what battlefield Bearss was on, he became increasingly renowned for his dramatic delivery, his easy command of seemingly inexhaustible facts, his stamina in the field and his visceral understanding of the importance of terrain. The terrain and the ground cover, he likes to say, determine whether enlisted men live or die, and whether their commanders win or lose the battle.

He was prominently featured in Ken Burns’ monumental “Civil War” series on PBS, and he has appeared in other Civil War programs on the A&E Network and the History Channel. He has also written or edited more than 20 books, mostly on the Civil War. If the prestigious awards he has won were campaign ribbons, he would have a chestful of them.

But leading tours is still what he lives to do. Even now, at 88, he figures he is working 225 days a year, either delivering addresses or giving tours.

Most of the people on the Little Bighorn tour had been on other tours with Bearss, and among them there is a kind of reverential awe for the crusty old historian.

Brent Weisman, an anthropology professor at the University of South Florida, had been on two Civil War tours with Bearss. For this, his first visit to the Little Bighorn Battlefield, he prepped for six or seven months, reading books and getting in good physical condition. He knew that, even at 88, Bearss would be hard to keep up with.

“I knew Ed walks at a good clip,” Weisman says. “And if you want to learn anything, you have to keep up.”

“He’s a true American treasure, a national treasure,” Weisman continues. “I’m encouraging everyone I know to sign up for one of his tours because he’s not going to be around forever.”

Dr. Michael Hill, a medical-center director from Laurel, Md., has known Bearss for almost 25 years, dating back to when Hill’s Civil War re-enactment group, the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, used to train on Park Service property in Washington, D.C.

Hill later appeared in the Civil War movie “Glory,” which recounted the exploits of the 54th Massachusetts, the all-black regiment that was led by a white officer from Boston. Hill says he loves to visit battle sites with Bearss because he is so good at setting the context for a battle or an incident in a battle.

Cult-like fans

Bears showed that at the Little Bighorn, when one of the people on the tour asked him whether the Indian warriors acted under orders from superiors or mainly fought as individuals. Bearss said the Indians did fight as resourceful individuals, contrasting them with the highly disciplined Zulu warriors who fought the British in South Africa just three years after Custer’s Last Stand.

This was Hill’s first visit to Montana, but he has been on at least two dozen Civil War tours with Bearss. Hill laughs at his own devotion and that of other frequent fliers, saying, “I don’t want to say ‘cult’ or anything, but ... .”

Frank Wilson of Washington, D.C., was on his sixth Little Bighorn tour with Bearss. It might sound monotonous, Wilson says, but there is always new research on the battle and Bearss always has something new to say.

And Bearss knows so much about the battle — and about Civil War battles that Wilson has visited in his company — that he is constantly changing the details of the narrative to fit his own fancy or to suit the interests of those on the tour.

“He has an encyclopedic mind,” Wilson says. “It’s amazing the facts he can bring to bear.”

But more than anything, Wilson says, Bearss knows how to make history come alive.

“It isn’t about strategy or tactics or the numbers killed,” he says. “It’s about the people.”

At the Little Bighorn Battlefield, Bearss is patient, listening to all questions and giving thoughtful answers, sometimes turning to fellow historian Jerome Greene, an expert on the battle who has been Bearss’ friend for 25 years, for confirmation or additional information.

But he is also a good leader, and he knows when his troops need to rest and when to be kept on the march. At a stop on top of Calhoun Hill, sometimes described as the place where Custer’s men staged their “first stand,” Bearss ponders a complicated query about the battle.

“That’s a good question to discuss on the way back to Billings,” he says, “because every minute we take now we lose from our last three stops.”

Saying which, he raises his swagger stick and leads the charge back to the bus.

Contact Ed Kemmick at or 657-1293.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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